The Psychology of Procrastination: Why Wait?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Procrastination" by Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you a chronic procrastinator? Why makes people procrastinate on important tasks? And why are some people more prone to procrastination than others?

Procrastination is essentially postponing an important task. Everybody procrastinates, but some people do it more than others. According to psychologists Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka, there are four factors that influence how much an individual tends to procrastinate.

Keep reading to learn about the psychology of procrastination.

Why Some People Procrastinate More Than Others

Various factors in our lives influence to what extent these fears make us procrastinate. According to the authors, your biology, self-esteem, upbringing, and degree of cultural marginalization influence your tendency to procrastinate. Some of these factors exaggerate the fear you experience when you face a task, and other factors reduce your ability to start and finish tasks. 

Various Perspectives on What Influences Procrastination

Compared to other well-known experts on the psychology of procrastination, Burka and Yuen place more emphasis on how your individual identity and circumstances influence your tendency to procrastinate. By contrast, other experts emphasize how general human behaviors influence procrastination.

For instance, in Eat That Frog!, Brian Tracy emphasizes how a task’s difficulty predicts how likely we are to procrastinate on it. He claims that humans usually procrastinate the most on important, consequential tasks because they’re typically the most difficult. We tend to fill our schedules with easier, less-consequential tasks (such as tidying) over harder, more consequential tasks (such as preparing for retirement).Tracy’s portrayal of procrastination as a universal struggle rather than a personal tendency has both benefits and downsides. One benefit is that this portrayal destigmatizes procrastination by presenting it as a problem all humans experience. A downside to this portrayal is that it fails to explain why some people procrastinate more than others. This could make it hard for chronic procrastinators to identify specific solutions.

Burka and Yuen’s emphasis on identities and circumstances also has pros and cons. Their approach may help procrastinators to identify specific solutions to their procrastination. It could help chronic procrastinators achieve self-acceptance by showing them that their habits aren’t entirely their fault. However, this view also has a downside: Some procrastinators might feel too much of their procrastination habit results from forces beyond their control. This could leave them feeling powerless.

Influence 1: Biology

First, the authors claim that your biology—both your bodily needs and brain wiring—influences your tendency to procrastinate. Let’s explore three ways your biology can cause procrastination.

First, some biological conditions heighten your fear. Some people’s brains are wired to exaggerate threats. Because they experience fear at higher intensities, they’re more desperate for the relief procrastination provides. For example, people with anxiety disorders are more likely to procrastinate, as anxiety makes tasks seem harder than they are. 

Second, some people procrastinate more than others because their brain wiring makes it harder to accomplish tasks. For instance, people with attention issues such as ADHD tend to procrastinate more. Their distractibility impairs their ability to begin and follow through on tasks. 

Finally, biological conditions such as depression decrease your energy and motivation. People with depression procrastinate because they lack the energy to start and finish tasks.

Influence 2: Self-Esteem

Second, the authors argue that people with unhealthy self-esteem tend to procrastinate more than people with healthy self-esteem. To better understand why, let’s first contrast healthy and unhealthy self-esteem. When you have unhealthy self-esteem, you possess a distorted view of your strengths and shortcomings. Furthermore, your sense of self-worth heavily relies on others’ opinions of you. By contrast, people with healthy self-esteem have a realistic sense of their assets and weaknesses and they possess a stable, internal sense of self-worth independent of others’ opinions.

People with high, unhealthy self-esteem procrastinate because they set unreasonably high goals for themselves. They think these goals are the only ones worthy of their abilities, which they believe are extremely high. However, these lofty goals are difficult. They procrastinate on these goals because they’re afraid that if they don’t achieve them, it’ll reflect poorly on them. 

By contrast, people with low, unhealthy self-esteem procrastinate because they believe many tasks are too difficult for them. They procrastinate because they believe it’s not worth trying or finishing a goal they’re bound to fail.

Influence 3: Upbringing

A third influence on procrastination, your upbringing, also involves self-esteem. According to the authors, your upbringing shapes both your self-esteem and fears, influencing your tendency to procrastinate. Let’s examine three family situations that intensify these fears and lead you to develop unhealthy self-esteem.

Neglectful families. Some people raised in neglectful families develop extremely low self-esteem. Neglectful families deprive children of care or convey that they’re inferior. Because these children believe they’re unworthy of care, they also believe they’re unworthy or incapable of success. Convinced they’ll fail any challenge, they avoid difficult tasks. By contrast, other people raised in neglectful families feel they need to earn attention and care by being perfect. They develop unhealthy self-esteem dependent on the opinions of others and a fear of imperfection, both of which cause procrastination.

High-pressure families. This type of family also makes people feel like they need to earn love by being perfect. As a result, they develop unhealthy self-esteem and learn to fear both imperfection and losing love. These two fears increase their tendency to procrastinate.

Controlling families. People raised in families that tightly control their schedules, relationships, and interests are more likely to develop a fear of restrictions. As previously noted, some people who fear restrictions procrastinate as a way to seize control over their life.

Family Situations That Nurture Healthy Self-Esteem

Burka and Yuen describe family situations that lead you to develop fears and unhealthy self-esteem, increasing your tendency to procrastinate. By contrast, what are some ways families nurture healthy self-esteem? 

First, whereas neglectful families convey low expectations for their children and high-pressure families set unrealistically high standards, supportive families set realistic expectations for their children’s performance. This helps children build a realistic sense of their abilities, which is a component of healthy self-esteem. For example, imagine a child who receives a D grade on a recent test. A neglectful family may expect they can’t improve their grade on their next test, and a high-pressure family may expect that they get an A on their next test. By contrast, a supportive family member could set a more realistic expectation: that the child raises their D grade to a C on their next test, and then to a B on the following test.

Second, whereas neglectful families deprive their children of attention and controlling families monitor their children too closely, supportive families strike a balance between supervising their children and respecting their independence. For example, a father could supervise his daughter when she watches TV to ensure she doesn’t watch anything inappropriate, and he could respect her independence by allowing her to choose which child-friendly show to watch.

Influence 4: Cultural Marginalization

Finally, the authors argue that people who experience cultural marginalization face additional pressure and constraints that increase their reliance on procrastination. Cultural marginalization is the experience of belonging to a region’s non-dominant culture. The authors focus on describing the cultural marginalization that immigrants and their children face.

People who experience cultural marginalization face pressures and constraints that members of the dominant culture don’t face, such as needing to learn new cultural rules and norms, working multiple jobs, learning a new language, and feeling the need to represent your entire culture. All of these demands amplify the aforementioned fears, increasing your reliance on procrastination.

For example, imagine a daughter of immigrants who dreams of becoming a poet. Her parents, however, expect her to represent her culture well by acquiring a high-paying job. When her teacher nominates her for a poetry contest, she procrastinates on her entry: She fears that if she wins, her parents will love her less for failing to meet their expectations.

(Shortform note: Burka and Yuen focus on how cultural marginalization influences procrastination, but other forms of marginalization, such as racism, also make you more likely to procrastinate. For instance, research reveals that college students of color procrastinate turning in their assignments more than their white peers. Systemic racism may explain this gap: Students of color face stereotypes that harm their self-esteem, relationship-building skills, and school engagement, increasing their tendency to procrastinate on assignments. This research suggests that efforts to help people beat procrastination must include large-scale efforts to reduce the systemic inequalities that contribute to procrastination.)

The Psychology of Procrastination: Why Wait?

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Here's what you'll find in our full Procrastination summary:

  • How to identify the fears that lead you to procrastinate
  • How your biology, circumstances, and self-esteem affect your procrastination
  • How to better control how you manage your emotions and time

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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